What moral philosophy can teach us about people-centered decision making
I’ve written previously about people-centered work environments and the fundamental shift in leadership behaviors, assumptions, and strategies that are required to achieve it.
Sometimes, it can be difficult for leaders to understand how to be people-centric because what is right and wrong can become skewed in hierarchical systems, especially as one gains power.
Research has shown that when we gain power, it enables our perspective and focus to become more self-interested, and moral reasoning ability deteriorates. The horrific Stanford Prison Experiment in the 1970s showed how unfettered power, even in a fictitious setting, led individuals like you and me to behave in ways they couldn’t fathom. This parallels the difficulty leaders face in maintaining a sense of concern regarding how their behavior impacts others. However, in a people-centered workplace, we must do better.
The best protection against the negative effects of power is a sense of moral identity.
It makes sense — having a solid sense of one’s own ethics can help us stick to our morals when faced with challenging situations. At a certain point, leaders may reach a level at which they’re only held accountable by themselves. It is especially important for leaders at this level to have moral identity.
Below I present three theories of moral philosophy and how we can apply them in the workplace to make more effective people-centric decisions and combat the negative effects of power that can end up turning us into people we never thought we would be.
1. Social Contract Theory
This is a prominent theory in moral and political philosophy, and one of the most relevant in organizations. It’s similar to the psychological contract I’ve written about before.
This theory posits that a society (e.g. organization) functions based on a “social contract” which establishes rules, norms, or guidance based on the societal context. Participants in this contract generally must understand and subscribe to the rationale behind rules, norms, and guidance in order for the contract to be established.
Organizational leaders and managers may violate or ignore the social contract by behaving in ways that are not acceptable, reasonable, relevant, or understood by employees. If, for instance, your HR team claims the organization has a particular culture during interviews and onboarding, and then leadership behavior is not perceived as upholding that culture, that damages the social contract and thus, reduces the ability of the society to function (i.e. low job satisfaction, disengagement, counterproductive work behaviors, low productivity, and intention to quit).
Violations of the social contract at work can lead to negative perceptions of organizational justice as well, which leads to reduced trust. Trust is arguably the most important single factor to determine organizational outcomes — is extremely important to protect it if you have it and build it if you don’t.
How to apply it:
Understand your organization’s social contract by reflecting on these questions:
- What messages do your HR and marketing teams generate that form employees’ perception of the organizational culture? Make sure you understand what employees think they’re signing up for when they join your organization.
- What can you do to behave in a way that more closely matches the kind of culture the organization claims or aims to have? Write down your thoughts and refer back to it the next time you’re making an impactful decision.
- If your employees found out why you made a particular decision, would it increase or maintain their trust in you? If no, reconsider your strategy.
2. Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative
It has two maxims:
- Only behave in such a way as you would wish everyone else to behave.
- Never use a person simply as a means to an end.
The first part is fairly straightforward. If you wouldn’t be OK with everyone else doing something, you shouldn’t do it yourself.
The second part is a bit more complex. Using a person “simply as a means to an end” means that the other person’s wellbeing, wants, and/or needs were not considered in decisions made or actions taken.
This is a tricky maxim to follow in organizations because employees are generally being used as “means to ends” because they were hired to do a job. Some might argue that they’re being paid to do that job, which means they are already getting what they deserve. This line of thinking ignores the reality of human psychological needs, and it violates the first part of the Categorical Imperative.
Employees’ mental and physical well-being impacts many aspects of business success, which means that creating an environment is not only the moral thing to do, but also the best choice for business outcomes.
How to apply it:
- Consider how you can make decisions and actions a win-win situation both for employees and the organization, without dishonesty.
- Can you explain to employees a logical or practical reason for making this particular choice, beyond your personal preference? Be able to share legitimate reasons for business decisions that negatively impact people. If there isn’t more of a reason than “Because I want it that way,” rethink the strategy.
- Have open and honest conversations about change, performance, and goals.
Utilitarians, the most well-known of which being John Stuart Mill, believe that the most ethical decision in a given situation is the one that leads to the most happiness for the most people. This is a form of consequentialism, which I’ll simplify as the belief that the consequences of actions matter more than the intent behind them.
Utilitarianism can become complex as we consider what the “most happiness” means.
Many believe that not all happiness is created equal. For instance, the happiness one experiences due to a ping pong table in the office or a virtual meditation may not compare to the happiness one experiences (and continues to experience throughout life) due to access to a company-paid professional certification or performance coaching.
Making choices in the organization that take into account the long term consequences of the decision instead of just short term gains or surface-level optics will enable leaders to make more people-centric decisions. Additionally, it is worth remembering that negative intent does not need to exist in order for behavior or decisions to be unethical or ineffective. Likewise, positive intent does not absolve leaders of responsibility for negative consequences of their choices or behavior.
How to apply it:
- Consider the breadth and depth of the consequences a decision may have on employees, especially if that decision has the potential to harm trust or create moral injury. Choose the option that causes the least amount of harm to employees long term, even if there is an option that would be better for the business short term.
- Ask for feedback to gather multiple perspectives to improve your decision-making.
- Aim for long-term solutions, not bandaids. Long-term thinking requires an understanding that the satisfaction and engagement of your workforce, underpinned by trust in leadership, is key to business success.
When, and how strictly, to apply ethical rules depends on the situation and the culture, as well as the people involved. I don’t get it right every time, but having these theories in the back of my mind has helped me to remain true to myself and my own morality through many tough decisions. I hope this brief introduction to moral philosophy helps other well-meaning leaders have more confidence in doing the right thing, pushing back, and helping to create a genuine people-centered culture.